Updated: Friday, February 9, 2018, 12:14 PM
Dwight Yoakam knew exactly where he was on Thursday night.
“Technically, it’s Bensalem,” said the veteran country star from the stage of the Xcite Center, the new 1,500-seat venue at Parx Casino in Bucks County. “But it’s the Greater Philadelphia area.”
That, of course, also meant that it was Eagles country on the evening following the Super Bowl LII champions’ victory parade, which Yoakam said he had witnessed earlier in the day.
Yoakam first stopped to acknowledge that triumph early in his set, shouting out former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski in “Streets of Bakersfield,” the Homer Joy-penned underdog paean that he covered with his hero Buck Owens in 1988.
That song’s “You don’t know me, but you don’t like me” chip-on-its-shoulder sentiment meshed nicely with the “No one likes us, we don’t care” us-against-the-world attitude of the song Eagles center Jason Kelce sang on the streets of Philadelphia.
And after Yoakam finished singing “Bakersfield,” the showbiz-savvy Pikeville, Ky., native and Los Angeles resident, who was introduced as being from “Hollywood, Calif.,” took the time to congratulate Philadelphia fans and remind them that “a lot of folks from around the country” were rooting for them against the despised New England Patriots.
Yoakam’s Xcite Center show was an early highlight in the schedule of the casino showroom, which opened last month as part of a $50 million Parx expansion with 1970s rock band Chicago and has a solid lineup made up primarily of classic rockers, long-established country acts, and comedians. The flat-floored shiny new venue has a 65-foot-wide stage and a generic atmosphere that resembles that of the Event Center at the Borgata in Atlantic City, without the raised bleachers in the rear.
Sight lines are clear from any corner of the rectangular 30,000-square-foot room and the sound was spot-on for Yoakam and his superb four piece band. Both the leader’s acoustic riffing at the core of “Honky Tonk Man” and the long-lined leads by ace guitarist Eugene Edwards on “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” came through with force and clarity. The mix tended toward the too-loud and shrill, however, for opening act Walker County, the Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash-covering Indiana family band featuring singer Ivy Dene Walker on guitar and her sister Sophie Dawn Walker on drums and harmonica.
The Xcite Center is a half hour haul up I-95 from Center City and also close to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, so it’s got plenty of population to pull from. And though the room was only about two-thirds full for the 61-year-old Yoakam, the casino floor was packed with Eagles-capped slot machine pullers. Smoking is allowed only in designated areas, but a faint cigarette smell is evident once you enter the building and, naturally, you have to make your way across the casino floor to enter the venue. All is fresh and clean however, once you’re behind the sealed doors of the Xcite Center.
The Yoakam date was the first Xcite show circled on my calendar, but there are a number of notables in coming weeks, in what looks to be the most consistent lineup yet seen at a Philadelphia-area casino, which also stacks up favorably against entertainment options in Atlantic City in its depleted state.
On the country-leaning side, Lyle Lovett and Shawn Colvin are coming on March 1; bland but big country-pop act Rascal Flatts plays on March 3; and Reba McEntire has a two-night stand on April 27 and 28. The Isley Brothers bring old school R&B on April 6, Beach Boy Brian Wilson plays May 8, and the most recently added booking — the Flaming Lips on March 10 — suggests that the Xcite Center could become a competitor for credible contemporary rock acts.
As for Yoakam, his 80-minute show was a model of stylish consistency. He pulled from a deep catalog, reaching back to Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., which was released in 1986, the year he made his Philadelphia debut at J.C. Dobbs on South Street. And he’s secure enough in the musical identity to spend a good chunk of his show playing tribute to the artists he’s synthesized into his own sound, starting with a twangy take on the late great Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” and including covers of Merle Haggard, Elvis Presley, and Lefty Frizzell.
The part-time movie actor — who was selling T-shirts at the merch table advertising Dwight Yoakam’s Bakersfield Biscuits — doesn’t score radio hits the way he once did, but he still makes high quality records, the most recent being 2016’s bluegrass foray Swimmin’ Pools, Movies Stars. … And with the brim of his cowboy hat pulled low and skinny jeans tight, he delivered his shuffling songs of hurt and heartache with a red hot band and a deftly deployed catch in his voice. Decades on, Yoakam remains a standard bearer of neo-traditionalist excellence and hillbilly hip.